Fake news: Who can we trust?

November 5, 2018

 

We live in platform-based world where content can virtually be created by every individual who can access the internet. With 4 billion online voices and counting, who can we trust? The issue of trust and transparency in the news cycle is front of mind for many of us.

 

The unravelling of our subconscious gullibility came to a head earlier this year as we watched with disbelief on the investigation into Cambridge Analytica, uncovered by Four Corners in the production, ‘Democracy, data, and dirty tricks’. Not only have many of us been confronted by fake news intentionally planted to change our opinion, but the investigation also revealed that many of our social media accounts have been used (unknowing to us) used to propagate the fake news cycle.

 

The truth travels six times slower than fake news

How much are our opinions being manipulated in this information age? The largest study on Fake News, released in March of this year in Science, analysed every major contested news story in English since Twitter’s lifespan. Among 126,000 stories, tweeted by 3 million users, over 10 years, the study found that fake news reaches 1,500 people six times faster than a true story does. False news is also 70% more likely to be retweeted than accurate news.

 

It seems that it’s not just the ‘planting’ or ‘creation’ of fake news that is at fault. Humans are intrinsic to the cycle of spreading fake news. It seems there is something deeply ingrained in our psychology which makes fake news more attractive, palatable, and shareable than the truth.

 

Top 5 tips to move away from fake news

So how can we weed out false information from real information? As a researcher, I am often prodded about the sources of information I use and who I trust.

 

Here’s a list of things that have helped me test the sources I trust and do my best to stay away from propagating false insights:

 

1. Ensure insights stand the test of time.

If something seems too ‘out of the norm’ to be true, it likely is. One of the most reassuring things in conducting market research and developing social trends insights is that trends continue to come around. Human behaviour is cyclical – elements are repeated across years and between generations.

 

2. Know that some sources are more authoritative than others.

This should be clear as day, but somehow in our subconscious minds we seem to give as much credibility and authority to celebrities when they share insights as we do to academics. There’s a reason why Edelman’s Trust Barometer (2018) shows we’ve again begun to trust experts (e.g. journalists, CEOs) more than platforms. People who have credibility in a certain field have usually done their homework.

 

3. Use lots of different sources.

One of the most reassuring parts of my work is when the story makes sense across and within sources. Normally one data point builds on a previous one, and it is the piecing together of information over time that leads to the most valuable insights. In social research, disciplines of demography, sociology, psychology, and current affairs all overlap to create one cohesive picture of what is really going on. It is in the application of all the sources that the true story emerges.

 

4. Some data is bad and shouldn’t be used.

Recognise that just because data is there, doesn’t mean it’s good data. Test the source – how was it collected, who was involved in collecting it, and what was their motive or bias? Data of genuine rigour and truth is much like a vegetable. Rarely will it scream at you to have you read or analyse it (just like vegetables are the most nutritious foods but don’t scream at us with their nutritional qualities). Often the most rigorous studies have the least PR budget.

 

5. Get to the bottom of it.

Research is time-intensive, laborious, and expensive. That’s why most authoritative sources of hard data are linked to government departments, universities, or specific research institutions. In demography, the ABS is still the analyst’s key source – (and the publication, Essential Statistical Assets for Australia), has oft served me well despite now being a few years old). Data.gov.au is another great way to access so many of Australia’s publicly available datasets.

 

I’m hoping that keeping these things in mind will help us all test the credibility of the voices we listen to, but more importantly, to work to building our own voices on data that can be trusted.

 

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Watch Eliane Miles discuss fake news on ABC The Drum with host Ellen Fanning, journalist Peter van Onselen, and City of Sydney councillor Craig Chung:

 

 

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